Monday, 15 October 2012

Thing 22 - Volunteering

Hmm - volunteering - bit of a thorny issue perhaps.  Personally I have never volunteered in libraries.  I don't think this has been a conscious decision however, more a fact that when I have needed experience the opportunities have been there to be paid.  As recorded in previous Things, when I wanted to get into libraries I was lucky enough to be offered a position as a Casual in my city Lending Library, grabbing any hours which came my way.  Again, when I needed experience outside of the lending library (having got a contract for 14 hours a week) I was able to pick up extra hours at various branch libraries.  I then managed to get a temporary job in the City Reference Library which again gave me valuable experience, indeed the only volunteering I can really think I did was ostensibly for my MSc dissertation which I was originally going to do on the People's Network and I offered to take the minutes so I could sit in on the SMT's meetings.  However this didn't last long as I moved into school librarianship and so changed the focus of my dissertation to something more relevant. 
I have however given others the opportunity to volunteer.  In about 2005 I received a request from a lady who had just left the Armed Forces, asking if she could volunteer in the LRC; she was anxious to move into libraries and so was trying to get as much different library experience as she could.  She worked with me for two weeks in total and I think it was a fairly positive experience for her as she ended up applying for a school librarian post in the city and getting it.  I recall the Principal of the school ringing me up to have a chat about her and the work she did with me and 7 years later she is still there and doing great work.  On a personal note, I would just not be able to find the time.  Everytime I visit my daughter's school I make a beeline for the library to 'check' it out and wish that I had the time to 'volunteer' in there.  The librarian in me aches to sort and weed the non-fiction (Dewey), to create some book displays and to just generally give it a tidy, but a) I am too scared I would be treading on a TA's toes and b) I work full time in a school so getting in there would be nigh on impossible.  
Having reflected on my personal volunteering history (practically nil), I am going to consider the very thorny issue of volunteers in libraries which has come about recently because of many councils looking to replace qualified and/or experienced library staff with unpaid volunteers so as to cut costs.  They will say it is so local communities can run their libraries in the best way to serve the needs of that area and who is more equipped to do this than the people who live in that area; if this is true and such a vital service, then surely these people should be reimbursed for their time and expertise just like......oh, lets see, librarians.  Typing volunteers in libraries into Google brings up hit after hit of public library services asking for volunteers and I was interested to see one authority make clear the difference between volunteers and their proposed community run libraries which will be run by volunteers with support and guidance from part time paid members of staff (no mention of any professional qualifications however) and it is at this point where I want to stand up for the profession.
I have nothing against people volunteering in libraries WHEN it is alongside paid professional and/or experienced staff.  Using volunteers INSTEAD of paid professional/and or experienced staff is demeaning for both the profession and the library users.  I have worked extremely hard to achieve my professional qualification and in the various library roles and responsibilities I have held, to believe that someone with no experience can just come in and do my job.  Regarding the library users, fulfilling their needs (whether it be information, a book to read, access to the Internet, just a friendly smile) is so much more than just stamping a book.  Placing it in the context of my school LRC; the LRC Manager and Assistant are currently working on a variety of projects under my leadership including building genre lists on our VLE, working with a pilot group of students to begin tagging fiction books with reviews as part of the OPAC record, collating data on usage of staff pedagogy books, implementing Goodreads with a pilot post 16 group AS WELL as planning activities for National Non-Fiction Day, answering enquiries, supervising students etc etc etc.  I should also add that the LRC Manager has got 10 years experience of library work, albeit all under my leadership and management and the LRC Assistant has years of working for Waterstones including as a store manager.  Whilst I accept that volunteers are great for front desk work, I think that there should always be paid, professional staff to do that behind the scenes stuff.  Who, for example, buys the books based on borrowing figures, local demographics, supply and demand statistics; who keeps the website up to date and keeps the library in touch with its users through Facebook, Twitter; who maintains the database with details of local community groups; who plans, delivers and evaluates sessions on how to use the Internet/email/social media..... I could go on, but would be here forever. 
As part of this Thing, I read Phil Bradley's (CILIP President) blog post (1)  on Volunteers in Public Libraries (this sector  is mainly where the furore is coming from) from May 2012 in which he defended CILIP's 2010 policy and a subsequent 2012 version on volunteers in libraries.  First of all I believe wholeheartedly Phil's statement that  "a library without a librarian isn’t a library, it’s a collection of books" and I applaud him for coming out in support of the profession so firmly.  For me it is the statement found within the policy (2) itself  "In order to optimise the value of that contribution, [use of volunteers] should form part of a professionally managed public library service that has at its core sufficient paid staff to ensure the direction, development and quality of the service provided.”  Volunteers are great in libraries which/should be at the heart of every community, whether it be on a university campus, within a school, in a town centre, a prison to name a few, but only when working alongside paid staff whose responsibility it is to maintain the level of service.  Many community groups, (Girls & Boys Brigade, Scouts, Guides, choirs, toddler groups, Not so Nimble clubs etc) only survive because of the generosity of volunteers who give their time and labour for free and such is the current state of Britain in the recession, it may well be the case that some libraries will only survive if we bring in volunteers.  Now volunteers can be as passionate about libraries as any paid professional/experienced library staff, but the level of service cannot be maintained, developed, improved upon without those professional and/or experienced library staff who have the knowledge, backed up by degrees, CPD, CILIP membership etc, AND the passion.
I understand the argument in the current economic climate about a library being better than no library, but those run by volunteers can be no more than a book exchanging service and as I truly believe that libraries are far more than that, I cannot in my heart of hearts support the idea that volunteers, however well meaning and passionate they are about the service, can run a library (who would ensure that the budget is spent fairly and equitably, based on a thorough understanding of the community's needs) and that is even before we get onto the nitty gritty such as what happens if the volunteers are ill, want a holiday, want a lie-in?  I applaud CILIP for saying that they (on my behalf) will not provide training for volunteers where it is apparent that they are replacing "qualified, trained and paid library and information workers"  (3) and I feel quite proud when it clearly says that
"high quality information services are vital to people’s lives, and local communities, learners, workers and businesses need the support of a trained and skilled workforce to thrive". (4), because libraries are high quality, information services and more than just a book repository.

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